Finger regeneration draws concern

Evolutionary adaptations have led to fascinating traits in certain groups of organisms, many that we wish to make applicable to humans. In the animal kingdom, some members of the phylum Echinoderms, like sea stars, are able to regenerate body parts that have been separated either voluntarily or by a predator. A sea star can grow a lost arm readily after detaching it from its body to either escape a predator or rid itself of a damaged limb. A similar trait has also evolved in certain snakes and lizards, now capable of readily regenerating their tails after losing them, a trait called “caudal autotomy.”

These phenomena fascinate scientists who wonder whether we can apply the basic principles of “regeneration” to humans. For people who have lost limbs, parts of their fingers or organs, or whose skin is severely damaged, regenerative medicine could completely change their lives. And some have already found a way to regenerate severed human body parts.

Take Lee Spievack, a Cincinnati hobby-store salesman, for example. Spievack says that he successfully grew back a portion of his middle finger that was sliced off by a model airplane propeller in an accident in August 2005.

“I pointed to [the model airplane],” Spievack recently recalled, “and said, ‘You need to get rid of this engine, it’s too dangerous.’ And I put my finger through the prop.”

The removed portion of his finger could not be found, so the emergency room doctor bandaged his hand and suggested a skin graft. Fortunately, Spievack’s brother is the founder of regenerative medicine company entitled ACell Inc. and a former Harvard surgeon. Dr. Alan Spievack gave his brother a powder created from pig bladder extracts used to help horses regrow ligaments. The powder, comprised of collagen and a few other substances, contains no pig cells, according to ACell scientific advisor Dr. Stephen Badylak, also a regeneration expert at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Spievack had already employed this powder on another man who had cut his fingertip off in an accident one year prior to Lee Spievack’s model plane incident. That man’s fingertip was successfully regenerated over four to six weeks, according to the doctor.

Naturally, scientists remain skeptical of this magical substance. While they do not deny that the tip of Lee Spievack’s finger has regrown, they believe it occurred naturally. “It appears to regenerate because new skin grows over the end of the finger—that’s a normal recovery,” Simon Kay, professor of hand surgery at the University of Leeds, told the BBC. “It can be utterly surprising how well it repairs after what appears to be a ghastly injury but it’s what you might expect from the most peripheral part of the body.”

Admittedly, it is difficult to understand what the powder does to signal the initiation of regeneration. But the very fact that we know little about the basic principles of regeneration, an established trait that has evolved multiple times in many groups of organisms, may represent our incomplete knowledge of the scientific practice. Studying this powder, whether it has contributed to the cause of the regeneration or not, may offer researchers a new perspective on regeneration. That, combined with studying existing traits in animals capable of this evolved talent, could lead to greater research advancements.

Emotion: enemy of science or friend of reason?

Does emotion belong in science? This simple question is one that many scientists would answer with a simple “no.” Emotion clouds rational thought, and should be avoided in favor of untainted observation of facts. When observing natural phenomenon of any type, the observer’s bias could colour the outcome, portraying an unrealistic picture of what was observed. In a quest for objective truth, emotion appears to be the enemy.

Many types of science are deeply tangled with emotion due to their subject matter. Dr. Harvey Armstrong, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at U of T, studies childhood sexual abuse. He sees no problem with incorporating emotion into his scientific research. “Human beings… are run by the limbic system,” he says, relaying insight into the difficulty of separating our feelings from any human endeavor (the limbic system is the neural network that supports emotion and behaviour).

Dr. Armstrong also believes that there is a total lack of emotion in the “hard” sciences. “All of the engineers I’ve run into are emotionally blind and deaf,” he noted fervently. While some level of disinterest is necessary for basic research, it is important to remember whom your findings will ultimately affect. “Who cares [about the age of the Earth]? If you’re likely to be shot on your street because people have not done appropriate things with kids and families, that’s rather more important,” Dr. Armstrong added.

The perceived separation of emotion and science in the physical sciences may not even truly exist. As soon as you step out of a laboratory (and usually before that), human emotion begins to infect lives. Many of the so-called “hard” sciences are afflicted with personal involvement as soon as they are applied to the real world. Nuclear physics as an academic discipline may not be an expressive activity, but as soon as its concepts are applied to nuclear energy or weapons, passions rise in a hurry. Dr. Ray Carlberg, Professor of Astronomy at U of T, commented “I don’t accept that the physical sciences…are not emotional.” Carlberg noted that all scientists are passionate about their work; otherwise, why spend long hours on tedious experiments?

Ideally, there would be a smooth transition from unbiased scientific observation to its caring, principled application. Still, this uneasy relationship between emotion and science will remain as long as scientists continue to ask questions.

Film Fest Heats Up

With over 170 films screened over ten days in April, Hot Docs is the largest documentary film festival in North America. While it may not have the celebrity-gawking star power of September’s Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs makes up for it with an abundance of thought-provoking films tackling everything from human interest stories to insects getting it on.


A behind-the-scenes examination of the $180 million Beatles extravaganza Love, All Together Now depicts the two surviving Beatles with awed reverence. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is pitched at the same superficial level. Though competent and fast-paced, director Adrian Wills never delves into the inner-workings of the production, nor does he examine the reasons behind the band’s enduring appeal. All Together Now is more puffery than documentary, yet almost worth the price of admission for several nifty candid shots of the Beatles and their hangers on: Paul and Ringo seated together during the show mouthing their own lyrics; Yoko Ono in mid-hissy fit; and George Martin offhandedly miming the cello during “She’s Leaving Home,” among others.

Rating: VVv


Dressed in a variety of bug costumes while posing in front of tacky, brightly coloured backdrops, Isabella Rossellini describes the mating habits of various insects. This series of shorts has inspired snickers over the sexual subject matter, but Rossellini (who also directs) presents the material with a rather charming, childlike sense of awe at both nature and the mechanics of sex.

Rating: VVVV


The latest from Peter Gilbert and Steve James, whose film Hoop Dreams remains one of the most acclaimed documentaries of all time. At the Death House Door packs a similar emotional wallop, profiling Carroll Pickett, a prison chaplain who presided over the executions of nearly 100 prisoners. Gilbert and James devote special attention to Carlos De Luna, who was executed on murder charges despite growing evidence that put his guilt into question. A powerful anti-death penalty statement done quietly.

Rating: VVVVv


What begins as a gimmicky documentary turns into a feverish rant over 76 rushed minutes. Aping the style of Super Size Me, director Andrew Nisker enlists his friends, the McDonald family, to store all of their garbage in their garage for three months. During this time, Nisker travels across the continent to see the effects of pollution on our environment. While the McDonalds’ plight is fitfully entertaining, Nisker haphazardly tackles too many topics. Some of his segments work (do most consumer goods really need so much packaging?), but others misfire: it’s unfortunate, for example, that the community around a garbage dump has seen property values nosedive, but doesn’t Nisker realize this is an inevitability? As his checklist of offenders rises, the film feels less like a cry for a revolution than a caterwaul of hopelessness.

Rating: VV


The title is a misnomer: Virtual JFK is actually a fairly standard retelling of political events during the Vietnam War, and the war’s escalation during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Still, it’s all compelling material that will undoubtedly make for prime viewing on the History Channel. Particularly fascinating is the abundance of footage from Kennedy’s press conferences, where he appears witty and charismatic, and the coda on LBJ is sympathetic to his crises of conscience without excusing his mistakes.

Rating: VVV


Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson (Beowulf & Grendel), Air India 182 intersperses staged re-enactments of the notorious 1985 terrorist attack with interviews of airport personnel, victims’ families, and others involved in the bombing and its investigation. While the re-enactments are created with the same level of realism as United 93, Gunnarsson has difficulty maintaining a consistent visual style (some scenes are shaky-cam, others feature intimate close-ups and smooth establishing shots). Worse, these sequences clash with the stylized interview segments, turning what should be a harrowing and emotional work into a cold and distanced one.

Rating: VV


The plight of the short-in-stature man is chronicled through this tongue-in-cheek documentary, which highlights examples of the discrimination they face. Howard Goldberg’s film is occasionally funny and even shocking (a long section deals with painful procedures that can increase height by several inches), and it brings to light some interesting facts (every additional inch in a man’s height can translate to thousands in salary). But Goldberg needs a better editor: his transitions from comic to dramatic scenes are abrupt and jarring, and his set pieces are edited together arbitrarily with little sense of flow or momentum. S&M peaks around its midpoint, and grows increasingly tiresome from then on.

Rating: VVv

Insite incites

Health Minister Tony Clement recently announced plans to provide $111 million for provincial drug treatment programs, with a new set of national advertisements warning families of the (gasp!) horrors of drug use. Unfortunately, none of this money is going towards safe injection sites like Vancouver’s Insite. Unless some of that fantastic funding comes floating their way (alongside the federal government’s guarantee that they will still be drug law-exempt), Insite’s doors will close on June 30, leaving many an addict stranded in the West Coast rain.

The idea that closing Insite will actually help to reduce drug use is ridiculous. Drug users are still going to use, whether there is a safe, clean, legal place for them to do it or not. This obvious fact apparently isn’t—at least, not to Tony Clement. He keeps arguing for “more research,” but over 22 independent studies have been conducted, with almost all providing overwhelmingly favourable reviews of the site. Clement’s concerns have nothing to do with research. They are about ideology, and the Conservatives’ drive to follow the American stance on the drug problem (no matter how misguided its lead is).

The Harper government has always taken an explicit anti-drug stance. In 2007, the Tories announced a $64 million program akin to a Canadian version of the American War on Drugs (and we all know how well that turned out). Sure, the number of arrests for possession in Canada has skyrocketed, but is this really a cause for celebration when a teen with a half-smoked blunt in his car ashtray is the primary target? Isn’t part of preventing drug use helping those who are already using?

The decision to keep or close Insite is crucial. The Conservatives are dragging their feet, because either move will cause them to lose support. Unfortunately, if the site closes, the people who pay are not the guys in Ottawa, but those addicts in Vancouver soon going through withdrawal.

Clement wants out of Insite, out of mind. Who needs safe injection sites when commercials remind us that drugs are bad? While the basic intent is right, the federal government’s execution is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Millions well spent

The City of Toronto plans to spend an extra $2.5 million this year and $4.9 million next year on the Streets to Homes program, assisting the homeless in finding places to live. The increased spending will go towards hiring social workers, and a new help phone line. Most city officials have agreed with the decision for expansion. Local business owners, who say that panhandlers often scare away business and bother customers, also favour the plan.

Opposition councillors argue that Toronto has many other problem areas that should take precedent over homelessness. While Toronto has an array of issues that all need financial fixes, consider the severity of this issue. How many pedestrians actually give a second thought to the panhandler at the corner of Bloor and Spadina? Those concerned often feel incapable of making a difference, reassured that panhandlers spend the money they receive on drugs or alcohol.

Not true! The vast majority of panhandlers —91 per cent—use the money they manage to collect for food. Three-quarters of those begging for spare change are also homeless and struggling to survive.

Homeless individuals who pose a risk to the general public are the exception. Those with mental health problems or addictions need more government attention. If they were not on the streets, they would be receiving the health care and support they require. Because they are homeless, they are ignored.

The city’s first approach to panhandling was to “get tough” and use the police force as a way to “clean up the streets.” However, ticketing the homeless was hardly effective. After all, someone who is trying to survive can hardly be expected to care about a slap on the wrist.

Toronto’s panhandling epidemic cannot be solved by treating the homeless like criminals simply because they bother us. Citizens need to examine what can be done to im-prove their quality of life. Law enforcement is not the answer. This is a social problem that requires a social solution. Spending more money to create a strengthened support network is an excellent first step in the right direction.

The Decoder

The Code of Student Conduct defines those “standards of student behaviour” and “provisions for student discipline” that the Governing Council considers essential to the functioning of the university, which have nothing to do with academic matters (for that, there’s a separate code). There is some overlap between the code and other university regulations: in cases relating to sexual harassment, residence, and athletics, for example. In areas such as these, if a student commits an offense, the hearing will likely go to the tribunal specifically set up for that matter, though the head of that division has the option to turn it over to a Code of Conduct hearing. The code, which came into effect in 2002, applies to all university divisions, including the federated colleges, and all students (“students” are defined as anyone doing academic work for which they will receive a grade, anyone registered in a course or program of study, everyone entitled to a T-card, and post-doctoral fellows).

Regardless of whether you’ve read the code, if it can be shown that you could be reasonably expected to know the rules, the rules apply. The code is not meant to shelter “nor add necessarily” to civic responsibilities. Of course, the Criminal Code still applies to students, but the Code of Conduct applies on top of that, in cases “in which criminal or civil proceedings have not been taken or would not adequately protect the University’s interests and responsibilities.” According to Section 7 of the code’s preface, “Nothing in this Code shall be construed to prohibit peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, lawful picketing, or to inhibit freedom of speech as defined in the University.” Yet one of the many offenses the code covers is that of “disruption.” You’re allowed to peacefully picket, and (thanks, guys!) you’re allowed to be quiet, “But noise that obstructs the conduct of a meeting or forcible blocking of access to an activity constitutes disruption.”

As it turns out, you’re not really allowed to peacefully picket outside a meeting either, if that picketing “substantially interfere[s] with the communication inside.” Needless to say, nothing in the Code of Student Conduct covers the Governing Council’s responsibilities towards students.

Overcoming the Blues

On April 30, while the majority of campus was consumed by the stress of exams, the entire U of T football team had something to get excited about. Alongside coaches and staff, the team crowded the Blue and White Room of Varsity Arena to cheer on their co-captain, wide receiver, and top CFL prospect Mark Stinson. Stinson and his team watched the CFL Draft, hoping to see the Blues star player get drafted.

“It was pretty awesome. I was surrounded by a lot of great people and we had a lot of fun with it. Guys were making a pool of when I would get drafted, what team I would get drafted to,” said Stinson of the event. Unfortunately there was no clear winner in the pool, as Stinson was ultimately not drafted to a team. However, the guys did get to see their star player’s name flash across the screen mid-draft. TSN named Stinson one of the top five receiver prospects in the country. This title has a lot to do with Stinson’s stellar performance at last March’s CFL Draft Evaluation Camp held here in Toronto.

At the camp, Stinson impressed by consistently performing well in both tests and drills. Although he moved up on many scouts’ radars, it was not enough to get him drafted this year. Yet Stinson was not fazed by the results. Maintaining a positive outlook, Stinson stated that “to be drafted would be great; it’s such a huge accomplishment. But it doesn’t mean the door is closed, that there aren’t other avenues…the dream isn’t over. There are a lot of good things to not being drafted.”

One is the opportunity to focus on the Blues’ upcoming season. Now that the draft is over, Stinson says his number one goal is to lead his team to success next year. “It’s about getting the Varsity Blues back to where we used to be. That’s the most exciting part. Everyone should know is that we are gonna have a good season. We are gonna be very successful. We want to share that with the rest of the school.”

This confident attitude will benefit Stinson, increasing his chances of being drafted in the future. According to Jamie Barresi, running back coach of the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, it is important for prospects to be driven and productive. He explains, “it’s kind of like that Rocky thing, you know? You just got to fight your way through and hopefully you’ll get a chance and if you get a chance to go to camp then anything can happen.” And if anything, Stinson is a fighter. He is constantly battling through a barrage of negative publicity surrounding the Blues’ losing record to defend his team and to prove the skeptics wrong.

“For people that don’t give you credibility, it’s time to earn that,” says Stinson, adding that the Blues will earn respect through continued hard work and dedication. “It’s the guys that stay there and fight through [the pressure of being a Blue] and fight every week, those are the guys that I’m proud of.” Stinson assures, “The guys on the team understand what’s at stake and how to win. And it will happen this year.”

While Stinson is focused on improving his team, scouts are already looking at the hopeful prospects for the 2009 draft. Stinson, along with other U of T standouts, could be among those hopefuls. This past Saturday, McMaster University hosted the sixth annual East West Bowl, CIS’ all-star football game featuring the top prospects for next year’s draft. No less than three Varsity Blues were invited to participate in the event. Blues’ offensive lineman Cameron Deans, defensive back Matthew D’Souza, and receiver Jeff Laforge helped lead the East team to their first ever victory over the West with a final score of 25-12.

Next season, Mark Stinson looks to earn the Blues’ first victory in 49 games. It’s clear that the Blues have what’s required to make this long anticipated victory a reality. They have great players, drive, and determination. But most importantly, they have team camaraderie. Even in the midst of the draft excitement, Stinson was the first to acknowledge his teammates. “Being drafted isn’t necessarily for me, it’s for everyone who’s helped me go through this and who has provided some form of support or motivation or shares the same dream that I have.” Obviously, the Blues support each other through thick and thin. They’re a team that watches the draft together; they’re a team that loses together. And hopefully next season, they’ll be a team that wins together.

Admin lay academic charges

U of T appears to be continuing its crackdown on fee hike protesters. The administration has threatened four student leaders, including a governor, with action under the Code of Student Conduct over disruption of an April 10 Governing Council meeting. The move came after Toronto Police arrested 14 protesters involved in a March 20 sit-in at Simcoe Hall, following complaints filed by the administration. Twelve of the 14 are also being investigated under the student Code of Conduct.

“Clearly, what we are seeing on this campus is an unprecedented repression of students organizing,” said Farshad Azadian, an AlwaysQuestion organizer and one of the so-called “Fight Fees 14.” “Nobody is going to claim that the sit-in was perfectly organized. But the charges are ridiculous, and we have gathered lots of support,” Azadian added.

Student and staff unions have offered support for the accused and condemned the investigations as a campaign to silence dissent. “We have received support from Unite Here, CUPE Ontario, OCAP, OPIRG, several community groups, [and] from students from universities across Canada,” said Deena Dadachanji, a spokesperson for the accused.

Todd Gordon, a U of T professor in Canadian studies, said the charges amounted to a attack on debate. “When people in positions of power have no meaningful response to dissent, they resort to coercion,” said Gordon. “They hope they can stamp it out through heavy-handed tactics: scaring others away from future dissent, […]

and suffocating the movement by targeting those they see as the ‘leaders.’”

The university has acted to distance itself from the charges, laying responsibility on the police, who decided to charge the 14 after receiving evidence and complaints from the administration. “We referred the matter to Toronto Police for their assessment, they decided to lay charges,” said Rob Steiner, U of T’s chief media spokesperson.

But Dadachanji said the administration was involved in the arrests. “Fourteen people have been hand-selected by the university because of their positions as key organizers,” she said. “There is no way the Toronto Police could have known their ability to mobilize against issues. It’s clear that the university has played a hand.”

Dadachanji also claimed that the administration may have given personal information, such as the demonstrators’ email addresses and phone numbers, to police. Steiner was not available to comment on this allegation.

Students investigated under the Code of Conduct were notified during the second week of April. Shortly afterward, they received emails from Toronto Police telling them to turn themselves in to Division 52 headquarters. Most were held for several hours before being released on stringent bail conditions.

Steiner confirmed that protesters were being investigated under the code but declined to comment on specifics, saying that cases under student code are confidential.

At the April 10 GC meeting, student governor Alexandru Rascanu read from a petition against the proposed fee increases until he was stopped by chair John Petch. While governors are not usually given time-limits on speaking during the meeting, Petch ruled that reading out the petition did not contribute to the ongoing discussion on the fee increases. Student activists then took over, continuing to read the petition aloud until the meeting had to be adjourned and relocated.

Petch sent letters to Rascanu and three of the students who read out the petitions: UTSU president Sandy Hudson, former Arts & Science Students’ Union executive Alanna Prasad and former UTSU VP university affairs Michal Hay, who was also arrested for the sit-in protest.

In an April 29 letter, admin advised Hudson that they were considering action against her under the student code for “the persistent disruption of the meeting, despite calls to order by the Chair.”

Rascanu said that his letter called for him to meet with the chair about matters relating to the student code. At that meeting, he said, he was told the student code charges would be discussed by the GC’s executive committee on Monday, May 12.

“I think that me being under investigation is a far stretch of the situation in which the code should be used. It is a way to silence student leaders on campus,” said Rascanu, who did not comment on the specific nature of the allegations against him.

A petition demanding that all charges against students be dropped had gathered 1592 signatures online at press time. The petition was started by the Allies for Just Education, a group formed to support the 14 accused.

AJE plan to hold a rally at Old City Hall on June 3, when the 14 will appear at a hearing.